Ellis Island Nation: Immigration Policy and American Identity in the Twentieth Century

Ellis Island Nation: Immigration Policy and American Identity in the Twentieth Century

Ellis Island Nation: Immigration Policy and American Identity in the Twentieth Century

Ellis Island Nation: Immigration Policy and American Identity in the Twentieth Century

Synopsis

Though debates over immigration have waxed and waned in the course of American history, the importance of immigrants to the nation's identity is imparted in civics classes, political discourse, and television and film. We are told that the United States is a "nation of immigrants," built by people who came from many lands to make an even better nation. But this belief was relatively new in the twentieth century, a period that saw the establishment of immigrant quotas that endured until the Immigrant and Nationality Act of 1965. What changed over the course of the century, according to historian Robert L. Fleegler, is the rise of "contributionism," the belief that the newcomers from eastern and southern Europe contributed important cultural and economic benefits to American society.

Early twentieth-century immigrants from southern and eastern Europe often found themselves criticized for language and customs at odds with their new culture, but initially found greater acceptance through an emphasis on their similarities to "native stock" Americans. Drawing on sources as diverse as World War II films, records of Senate subcommittee hearings, and anti-Communist propaganda, Ellis Island Nation describes how contributionism eventually shifted the focus of the immigration debate from assimilation to a Cold War celebration of ethnic diversity and its benefits--helping to ease the passage of 1960s immigration laws that expanded the pool of legal immigrants and setting the stage for the identity politics of the 1970s and 1980s. Ellis Island Nation provides a historical perspective on recent discussions of multiculturalism and the exclusion of groups that have arrived since the liberalization of immigrant laws.

Excerpt

In the first decade of the twenty-first century, Americans across the political spectrum have fiercely debated the costs and benefits of immigration. Lou Dobbs, Pat Buchanan, and others have declared that the recent wave of “new” migrants from Latin America and Asia are not assimilating into American culture. By contrast, they praise the eastern and southern European immigrants who came through Ellis Island in the early twentieth century, suggesting that those newcomers eagerly embraced American traditions. Indeed, politicians and intellectuals of all ideological stripes now routinely refer to the United States as a “nation of immigrants,” which includes Jews, Italians, and others who arrived at the turn of the century. In 1998, for instance, President Bill Clinton discussed the value of immigration in a commencement address at Portland State University: “More than any other nation on Earth, America has constantly drawn strength and spirit from wave after wave of immigrants. In each generation, they have proved to be the most restless, the most adventurous, the most innovative, the most industrious of people.” He added, “Bearing different memories, honoring different heritages, they have strengthened our economy, enriched our culture, renewed our promise of freedom and opportunity for all.” Such proclamations are repeated so often and so frequently by politicians from both sides of the aisle that they have almost become banal.

It was not always this way. In the first quarter of the twentieth century, the country was similarly divided by debates over the costs and benefits of that era’s “new” immigration. Between the 1880s and early 1920s, America’s immigrant population shifted from so-called “old” immigrant stock of northern and western Europeans to predominantly Jewish and Catholic arrivals from southern and eastern Europe. At the time, many insisted that these groups weakened the country and could not be assimilated into American culture. To stem the rising tides of undesirables entering the country, Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1924, which placed strict . . .

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